Five Questions: Laura Kirkley on Caroline of Lichtfield

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Caroline of Lichtfield

Laura Kirkley is currently a Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at Newcastle University.  She completed her PhD at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, writing an interdisciplinery thesis focusing on Mary Wollstonecraft; subsequently, she worked as a College Lecturer at The Queen’s College Oxford before returning to Trinity Hall as a Lecturer in English and French.  Her work focuses particularly on women’s writing, feminist theory, cross-cultural exchanges and translation, which made her an ideal editor for Caroline of Lichtfield, a novel originally composed in French by Isabelle de Montolieu and translated into English by Thomas Holcroft.  Her edition, which we discuss below, was published by Pickering & Chatto in April as the nineteenth volume in the Chawton House Library series.

1) You write in your acknowledgements that you first came across Caroline of Lichtfield through Mary Wollstonecraft.  To what extent were the expectations Wollstonecraft raised satisfied when you first read the novel?

I didn’t have any particular expectations, I was simply intrigued.  From what I could gather, Caroline de Lichtfield – Wollstonecraft seems to have read the French version – was a sentimental novel, and Wollstonecraft’s reviews of such works were generally waspish and disapproving, so I was surprised by her enthusiasm.  She seems to have found the novel in the library of the Kingsborough family home when she was a governess in Ireland, and I was interested in her French literary influences in that period, so I decided to find out why she’d been so delighted with Caroline.  I wondered if there had been an English translation, and I found a particularly lively one by none other than Thomas Holcroft.  I know translation is often regarded as hack-work, but I was still surprised: I’d tended to associate Holcroft with political, polemical, or theatrical works – and indeed, Caroline turns out to be the only novel he ever translated.  So I read Caroline (in French and in English) as part of my research into Wollstonecraft and her fellow radicals, and I found, both times, that I couldn’t put it down!  It’s a sentimental novel, but it’s one that engages intelligently, and often humorously, with the literature and culture of sensibility.  Montolieu is very aware of the conventions of her own genre, and she embraces and mocks them in equal measure.  I kept thinking of Austen – who, it turns out, read and enjoyed Caroline – and I’m convinced her reading of Montolieu played a part in the creation of Sense and Sensibility. Caroline is a very enjoyable read, which explains why it was a bestseller, but it’s clear to me that Montolieu was also highly influential.

2) In what ways do you believe that the novel and Montolieu’s wider work have been misrepresented in critical accounts?

Very little has been written about Montolieu.  That might sound odd, given that she was both prolific and well received; but because she often translated or adapted existing texts, she’s been sidelined as an imitative, populist writer.  Personally, I think her neglect is a feminist issue too: there’s been a tendency, in the past, to regard women writers as less inventive than their male counterparts.  Look at Aphra Behn: her works were criticised as derivative for years, even though highly respected contemporaries, such as Dryden, also adapted source texts.  Feminist critics have rehabilitated many neglected women writers, but there’s still more work to do.  Of course, our understanding of writers like Montolieu is now also being shaped by advances in Translation Studies, which suggest that translation and adaptation should, indeed, be regarded as creative practices.  To my knowledge, with the exception of Joan Hinde Stewart, critics have tended to dismiss Caroline as sentimental melodrama.  And yet exacting critics of the novel, such as Wollstonecraft, Germaine de Staël, and Maria Edgeworth, singled out Montolieu for praise.  I think they were alert to her metafictional commentary and the moral argument of her works in a way that many modern critics are not.  Hopefully my introduction to the edition will do something to address that problem!

3) How did the text’s status as a translation and its Swiss and European contexts affect the preparation of your edition?

I wanted to highlight the differences between Montolieu’s text and Holcroft’s translation, so I spent a lot of time comparing the versions and creating a set of footnotes that point out, and suggest possible reasons for, important cuts, additions, or alterations.  In the introduction, I also devoted a lot of space to contextualising Montolieu, who was a Swiss-French gentlewoman, and Holcroft, who was a working-class British radical.  That brief description makes them sound poles apart, but I believe that Caroline testifies to certain shared moral and cultural values that promoted literary exchange between Britain and Switzerland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

4) In what ways do you think the novel might productively be used in undergraduate and postgraduate courses and by researchers?

Caroline epitomises the French novel of sentiment, so it would be invaluable reading for students of French and Comparative Literature.  The English version was incredibly well received in Britain, so Holcroft’s translation could also be used to explore ideas of sensibility and moral sentiment with students of English literature.  The novel was written at a pivotal moment, when the literature of sensibility was enjoying its heyday on the European continent but was also a well-established genre increasingly vulnerable to ridicule.  Montolieu provides material to explore both kinds of response to sentimental literature.  Researchers of any novelist writing in this period – particularly scholars of Austen, Wollstonecraft, Edgeworth or De Staël – may also want to consider the influence of Caroline on the novel in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It’s also essential reading, I believe, for scholars of Holcroft.  As my introduction suggests, it’s instructive to observe what aspects of the novel he changed in the process of translation.  In my view, his translations were often apprentice efforts – he used them to develop various styles of writing and, in Caroline of Lichtfield, his prose is distinctively theatrical.  I hope the novel also provokes more interest in the works of Montolieu, who has been neglected for far too long.

5) What new projects are you currently pursuing?

Too many!  I’m currently finishing the Wollstonecraft monograph that I was researching when I came across Caroline de Lichtfield.  It’s called The Revolutionary Cosmopolitanism of Mary Wollstonecraft, and it redefines Wollstonecraft as a cosmopolitan intellectual who was profoundly influenced by the European commerce des lumières and by Revolutionary political and linguistic theories.  I analyse her engagement with the works of Rousseau, her work as a translator, and her evolving philosophical and creative response to issues of patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and cultural difference.  I’ve also been researching Wollstonecraft’s translation into French and German in her own lifetime and in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and considering how the different agendas of the translators gave her multiple European ‘afterlives’.  I’m interested in attitudes to translation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that’s also led to some research into Germaine de Staël, the quintessential cosmopolitan.  And finally, I’ve begun work, with some colleagues at Cambridge and St Andrews, on a project that explores the literary and aesthetic treatment of maternal sentiments in the early modern era.  My research for that project has focussed partly on Wollstonecraft – again! – but I’ve also been considering the lyric and elegiac poetry of women writing earlier in the eighteenth century.